Friday, October 25, 2013


We went to the first of a series of lectures on "Exotic Jewish communities" given by Gabriella Licsko at Netanya AACI. Gabriella is a Hungarian Jewish immigrant to Israel who specializes in Jewish cultural phenomena. She gave a series of lectures last year on the various Orthodox Jewish sects in Israel, which were so popular that we invited her back. The current series started with a description of the Yemenite Jewish Community, that includes not only the true Yemenites, but also the Habbani and Adeni communities.

The Yemeni Jews are a very ancient and separate grouping, not included under the Ashkenazi (Yiddish) or Sephardi (Spanish) main Jewish rites. They developed largely in isolation and their distinct attribute was to largely follow the teachings of the Rambam (Moses Maimonides), who came from Cordova, Spain and resided in Cairo (1168-1204). He wrote a famous letter to the Yemeni community, in answer to the question, if a Jew is threatened by death unless he converts to Islam, should he choose to convert or accept death? He wrote that it is preferable to convert, because first one can secretly continue to believe and practice Judaism (as many conversos did in Spain) and second there may come a time when the forced convert can revert back to his original path (as the Rambam once did). He also advised that conversion to Islam was preferable to conversion to Christianity, because Islam is determinedly monotheistic while Christianity requires belief in a "trinity."

The reason the Yemenite Jews would ask such a question is because they lived under a terribly oppressive Muslim regime. Although they had developed a strong community during the pre-Muslim period, once Islam arrived in Yemen they were very badly treated. It was common for Jews to be abused in broad daylight on the street and Jewish women stayed mainly in their houses and only went out dressed as Muslims. But, many Jewish communities experienced harsh treatment, what made the Yemenite experience worse was the co-called "Orphan decree." Under this, if any Jewish child was orphaned then they were automatically required to be converted to Islam. To avoid this fate many children were either betrothed and/or married at very young ages, something for which the Yemenite community is known, but the origin of this custom is not well known.

The Yemenites wore characteristic oriental-style clothes, the men with long peyot and were not allowed to wear turbans or wear swotds or any protective weapons or ride horses, only donkeys. The women wore black clothes with a pointed cape on their head. They were not allowed to be farmers or engage in agriculture, so they became silversmiths, pot- and earthen-ware makers and shop-keepers. Ironically when they arrived in Israel in large numbers in the 1950s they were channeled by the Israeli authorities into agriculture. Because of their persecution the Yemenites developed Zionism independently and started arriving in Palestine in the 1880's. The area of Tel Aviv called Keren Hateymanim became a Yemenite enclave, and later many settled in Rosh Ha'ayin, and Rehovot and vicinity. They were famously brought to Israel on Operation Magic Carpet in 1949-50 when many of them had never seen an airplane before. There are estimated to be now ca. 350,000 Yemenite Jewish descendents in Israel.

The Yemenites were not homogeneous, they divided into at least three major religious groups, there was a group who were influenced by Sephardic rites and mysticism called Shami, and those who were not influenced in this way were called Baladi (from the Arabic for "home country"). The offshoot of the Baladi were the Rambamistim and the Dordaim both of whom advocated a more "rational" version of Judaism and mostly rejected Sephardi mysticiswm.

A distinct smaller group from the area of Yemen called Habban are the Habbani Jews, who although nominally Yemenite Jews, were quite different. Many years ago they developed a military tradition, and wore their hair long, wore turbans, rode horses and were much feared by the local Arab tribes, who tended to avoid them. They were called "wild Indians" by the Israelis who rescued them. By contrast to most Yemenite Jews who were not strongly builtt, the Habbanis were tall and muscular. However, there were only several thousand of them, and they settled together in Moshav Bareket near Ben Gurion airport and became wealthy, since they owned the land on which Airport City was built.

Finally, the Adeni Jews were also quite distinct, due mainly to the fact that the British conquered Aden in 1839 and treated the Jews there very well, recognizing that they were loyal to the British Crown and were excellent traders, just what the port city needed. Although they descended from the same Jews as the Yemenites, they did not consider themselves Yemenite Jews and greatly intermarried with Iraqi and Indian Jews. They spoke English, were quite wealthy, adopted British dress and customs (including afternoon tea) and even before the Brithish withdrew from Aden in 1963 they mostly went to Stamford Hill, London, although there is a small group living in Israel in Tel Aviv. The persistence of these groups of formerly Diaspora Jews in Israel is a testimony to the strength of ethnic customs and practices.


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